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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Israel, Iran and Deterrence

There’s a fascinating and important exchange underway on the New Republic site between Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalem Center and Larry Derfner of the Jerusalem Post about Israel’s options towards a potentially nuclear Iran.This debate was spurred by a widely quoted TNR article last week by Halevi along with Michael Oren that suggested Israelis have largely concluded that they cannot live with a nuclear Iran, and will probably soon launch some sort of attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities even if that spurs retaliation or a large-scale Middle Eastern meltdown.You should read the entire exchange (Halevi’s second rejoinder will appear tomorrow), but the central points in the dispute have to do with Halevi’s belief that the Iran regime’s peculiar theological nature will make it intolerably tempted to attack Israel with nuclear weapons regardless of the disastrous consequences to its own people, giving Israel little choice but to preempt that possibility or risk extinction.Derfner’s latest post nails the central problem with Halevi’s argument: it rejects the entire and completely successful history of nuclear deterrence:

You say it’s “facile” of me to use Stalin and Mao to argue that even crazy, bloodthirsty leaders aren’t likely to use nukes, because I’m disregarding the new element of apocalyptic Iranian religion. But, when I’m trying to anticipate what somebody’s going to do in the future, I put a lot more store in his deeds than in his texts. I think Stalin’s and Mao’s purges of tens of millions of innocents augur much more for nuclear insanity than the Shia doctrine of the Hidden Imam. For all its violent repression at home and aid to Islamic terrorism abroad, post-revolutionary Iran has never started a war with another country. It has never used its WMD on anybody, either. It has never trafficked in genocide.The reason, I believe, is the power of deterrence. It has worked on Iran, too. It has worked on everybody–no exceptions. And, while there is, of course, a theoretical possibility that it won’t work on a nuclear Iran, I think Israelis have to weigh the results of nuclear-age deterrence against the predictable and unpredictable results of a war against Iran–and to choose hopeful moderation over its fear-induced opposite.

There are, of course, considerable grounds for Israelis to believe that its nuclear deterrent won’t stop conventional military attacks on their country; after all, during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Egypt and Syria concluded (inaccurately, according to most accounts) that Israel would not launch a nuclear attack to keep Arab armies out of Tel Aviv. But the conventional threat to Israel is only marginally increased by Tehran’s nuclear program, even if it’s far more advanced and successful than most observers think it is. So the question remains: what’s riskier for Israel? Relying on the 100% success rate of nuclear deterrence against nuclear attacks since Hiroshima? Or unleashing a regional war at a time when the furies that would unleash are undoubtedly horrifying, not least for Israel?

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